The watercolor medium is defined as pigments suspended in a
water-based solution. Overall, watercolor paint is known for its
translucent qualities and its ability to dilute in water.
Watercolor painting is extremely old, dating perhaps to the cave
paintings of paleolithic Europe, and has been used for manuscript
illustration since at least Egyptian times but especially in the
European Middle Ages. However, its continuous history as an art medium
begins with the Renaissance.
famous Lascaux Cave paintings in southwestern France that use a
watercolor-like medium, dates back to 15,000 BCE to 9,000 BCE.
An example of Renaissance manuscript painting with watercolor detailing on the side panels and center image.
The Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer
is generally considered among the earliest exponents of watercolor. He
painted several fine botanical, wildlife, and landscape watercolors to
use as scientific imagery.
Young Hare by Albrecht Dürer using early watercolors, 1502.
However, botanical and wildlife illustration perhaps make up the
oldest and most important traditions in watercolor painting. Botanical
illustrations became popular during the Renaissance, both as hand-tinted
woodblock illustrations in books and as tinted ink drawings on vellum
or paper. Botanical artists have traditionally been some of the most
exacting and accomplished watercolor painters, and even today,
watercolors—with their unique ability to summarize, clarify, and
idealize in full color—are used to illustrate scientific and museum
publications. Wildlife illustration reached its peak in the 19th century
with artists such as John James Audubon, and today many naturalist
field guides are still illustrated with watercolor paintings.
Watercolor painting from John James Audubon’s book Birds of America depicting a wild turkey in full detail and color.
In the late 18th century, the English cleric William Gilpin wrote a
series of hugely popular books describing his picturesque journeys
throughout rural England. He also illustrated them with self-made
monochrome watercolors of river valleys, ancient castles, and abandoned
churches. This example popularized watercolors as a form of personal
tourist journalism. The combination of cultural, engineering,
scientific, tourist, and amateur interests all culminated in the
celebration and promotion of watercolor as a distinctly English
“national art”. William Blake published several books of hand-tinted
engraved poetry, provided illustrations to Dante’s Inferno, and
also experimented with large monotype works in watercolor. Among the
many other significant watercolorists of this period, were Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, Francis Towne, Michael Angelo Rooker, William Pars, Thomas Hearne, and John Warwick Smith.
The three English artists credited with establishing watercolor as an independent, mature painting medium are Paul Sandby, often called the “father of the English watercolor”, Thomas Girtin, who pioneered its use for large format, romantic or picturesque landscape painting, and Joseph Mallord William Turner,
who brought watercolor painting to the highest pitch of power and
refinement, and created hundreds of superb historical, topographical,
architectural, and mythological watercolor paintings.
Turner’s method of developing the watercolor painting in stages,
starting with large, vague color areas established on wet paper, then
refining the image through a sequence of washes
and glazes, permitted him to produce large numbers of paintings with
“workshop efficiency” and made him a multimillionaire. Among the
important and highly talented contemporaries of Turner and Girtin, were John Varley, John Sell Cotman, Anthony Copley Fielding, Samuel Palmer, William Havell, and Samuel Prout.
View of Avon Gorge, watercolor by Joseph Mallord William Turner, dated 1791.
Watercolor painting also became popular in the United States during the 19th century; outstanding early practitioners included John James Audubon, as well as early Hudson River School painters such as William H. Bartlett and George Harvey.
By mid-century, the influence of John Ruskin, a famous social thinker
and art patron, led to increasing interest in the watercolor medium.
Late-19th-century American exponents of the medium included Thomas Moran, Thomas Eakins, John LaFarge, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, and, preeminently, Winslow Homer.
Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1889.
Among the many 20th-century artists who produced important works in watercolor, Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele, and Raoul Dufy must be mentioned. In America, the major users of watercolor included Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, and John Marin.
In this period, American watercolor painting often imitated European
Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, but significant individual styles
flourished in the “regional” areas of watercolor painting from the
1920’s to 1940’s.
Although the rise of abstract expressionism,
and the trivializing influence of amateur painters and advertising- or
workshop-influenced painting styles, led to a temporary decline in the
popularity of watercolor painting after 1950, watercolors continue to be
utilized by artists like Martha Burchfield, Joseph Raffael, Andrew Wyeth, Philip Pearlstein, Eric Fischl, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, and Francesco Clemente.
Like Fete, pictured below, has a beautiful swirling of pink and blue
colors but it also has a heavy layer of texture. You can even see where
the pigment in the paint has collected and pooled on the piece of paper
to create a hazy purple, these up close details just make the art more
accessible to the viewer.
Sarovar, also pictured below, you can see the actual individual
brushstrokes of the artist. This personal touch is preserved in the
painting and can be reinterpreted dozens of times by dozens of different
people. The texture of the piece showing the deliberate touch of the
These small and somewhat minor details humanize the artwork and the
artist by letting the viewer see the steps and process it takes to
produce an original artwork. To be able to see and understand the
artists’ process is to understand their decision making and the reason
behind their specific choices. This inside look at process will make the
final artwork much more impressive to view.